Trump and Clinton get closer: Arizona and Utah's relatively small primaries loom larger in the shadow of Brussels terrorist attack

Trump and Clinton take steps toward nomination on a day when fears of terrorism are dominating the news

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 23, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton   (AP/Carlos Osorio/Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton (AP/Carlos Osorio/Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)

There was one inescapable question going into the primaries on Tuesday night, however distasteful and too soon-ish it might feel: Would the terrorist attacks in Brussels impact the outcome?

The Republican candidates seemed worried about it, with Ted Cruz hustling particularly hard to make sure that primary voters in Arizona and caucus-goers in Utah went to their polling stations (or computers in Utah, which has online caucusing) knowing that he is just as hateful, fascist and bigoted as his sneering orange-faced competition. But Trump, who never saw a situation he couldn't make worse by opening his mouth, cheerfully endorsed torture and even more immigration hysteria, with an eyeball firmly on the voting patterns of people who watch way too much Fox News and think we're but five minutes away from open war on the streets of America.

For the Democrats, the question was far more muted. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took to Twitter to disavow the bigotry of Republicans. Both candidates also suggested that the U.S. and its military might have a role to play in fighting back, though both were clear about their aversion to ground troop invasions.

There's broad consensus in the punditry world that Islamic terrorism helps Trump and that Cruz's efforts at turning up the volume on belligerence just can't compete with the breezy brutality that comes so naturally to Trump. That understanding shouldn't matter much in Arizona, where Trump held a comfortable lead over many polls. Which makes sense, as Arizona is the home of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the only non-Southern state that Barry Goldwater won in 1964. Race-baiting demagoguery of the sort that has propelled Trump to the top of the Republican polls is their favorite flavor of conservatism in Arizona.

Arizona has a lengthy early voting process, blunting the impact of the Brussels attacks on the polls. But even taking that into consideration, it does seem that Trump, who won as expected, likely got a minor boost from the Brussels attacks. While Trump still struggles to hit 50% or more of Republican voters, he did even better than polls predicted in Arizona, while Cruz and Kasich both underperformed. The results suggest that at least some voters were influenced by the attacks to jump ship to the candidate viewed as the most belligerent poseur in the bunch, a trophy that will always go to Trump.

That said, Trump shouldn't be too happy about the Tuesday results. With threats of a brokered convention looming over his head and a drastically narrowed field, he really needs to be getting above 50% of the voters in order to make the case that he's the clear pick for the nomination. If he can't pull it off in Arizona, the original home of the "papers please" anti-immigration law and Sheriff Arpaio's horrific tent city prison camps, then he can't do it anywhere. Even though the winner-take-all Arizona primary helps get Trump closer to 1,237 he needs to win the nomination free and clear, his utter failure to get a clean majority of actual voters suggests that a brokered convention might be moving out of the realm of speculation to a near-certainty come July.

On the Democratic side, it was an open question of what kind of impact terrorism could have on voters. Clinton's foreign policy experience is bound to be weighing heavily on voter minds, but then again, so is Sanders's frequent accusation that Clinton is too hawkish. In Arizona, at least, it seemed voters were feeling experience over fears of overly hawkish leanings.

Clinton had a strong lead going into Arizona, but she won the state with an even stronger showing than the polls predicted. While Sanders focused on the continuing "energy and excitement" of his campaign during his speech in San Diego, the results in Arizona suggested that the Brussels attack had a sobering effect on voters. Sanders' soaring progressive rhetoric is appealing, but his strong focus on domestic issues, especially when contrasted with Clinton's foreign policy experience, was not going to help him on a day when everyone was thinking about ISIS's hopes of creating violent conflict with the West.

Arizona was the biggest state for the Democrats Tuesday, but this state was still not really going to make that big a difference. "Democrats are voting today too," Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight explained in pre-primary coverage, "but because all delegates in the Democratic race are awarded proportionally, the overall contour of the race — Hillary Clinton is winning — is unlikely to change."

Utah was a much different story for Republicans than Arizona. Cruz had a lot riding on the outcome of the Utah caucuses, because a win there could help revive his campaign's dwindling hopes of ever overcoming Trump's lead.  There isn't much polling data out of Utah, but what there is showed Cruz leading by over 20 points. Unlike the white evangelicals they usually resemble politically, Mormons are assumed to take this religious conservatism stuff seriously and aren't going to throw it out the second a shiny orange thrice-married hedonist says a nasty word about Mexicans or Muslims. They're seen as so stubborn about this no-really-we-are-social-conservatives stuff that Trump's son, Donald Jr., whined that it must be that they are just ignorant about his dad's supposedly family-friendly side.

(That or they've seen videos of Trump holding a kid with so little skill you immediately realize that nannies really did raise his kids for him.)

Because of this, the run-up to the Utah caucus got really ugly, with nasty attack ads on both sides. Perhaps the lowest blow, however, was a SuperPAC for Cruz that ran an anti-Trump ad featuring Melania Trump, then Knauss, posing naked on a fur rug, with sneering copy about how silly it is to imagine her as the first lady.

Slut-shaming? Absolutely. But probably effective at reminding Mormon voters that Trump's romantic history has no relationship to the conservative family values life they idealize.

That was demonstrated in the final polls in Utah, where Cruz won nearly 7 out of 10 voters, performing far better than polling suggested and netting all 40 delegates from the state.  

Unlike Arizona, Sanders had a slight advantage over Clinton in Utah and Idaho, since he does better with white voters, who constitute a much bigger chunk of the Democratic base than in other, more racially diverse states. That ended up mattering a lot because, despite the Brussels attacks bringing up questions about foreign policy experience, Sanders crushed Clinton in both Utah and Idaho, winning nearly 8 out of 10 voters in both.

But despite these overwhelming victories, things didn’t change much. Overall, Sanders only netted 6 delegates over Clinton, not nearly enough to even start closing a gap of over 300 delegates between them. “[H]e’s far enough behind Clinton that he needs to not just meet but blow out his delegate targets the rest of the way to have a shot at eventually catching Clinton,” Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight explained in his wrap-up.

That said, next week is a much larger state — Washington, with 118 delegates — and if Sanders can't sweep the Pacific Northwest, the home turf for the earnest, well-off, white young liberals that are the backbone of his campaign, then it really is time for him to throw in the towel. But barring some huge and highly unlikely scandal, there’s no reason to believe that Washington will be anything but huge win for him, giving his campaign a burst of energy and hope that they'll need going into April.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte